Sounding the alarm for Tacoma's City Hall and our own Alcatraz

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation releases its 2011 annual "Most Endangered" list.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation releases its 2011 annual "Most Endangered" list.

I suppose they can't list something as over-arching as heritage itself, last year having been a bad year for history in general. But the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's "Most Endangered" list does offer five specific sites worth protecting that are facing serious challenges. Three of the five are in Pierce County.

At the top of the list is Tacoma's Old City Hall, a spectacular structure, one of the towering gems of the City of Destiny's architectural heritage. Unlike some of Tacoma's landmarks (Union Station), no new use has taken root there in recent years; a recent condo conversion was stalled by the economy, and there's been serious water damage.

Another is the historic McMillin Bridge, an innovative span built in the 1930s that was "the longest concrete truss or beam span in the country." It was designed by Homer Hadley, more famous for designing the first Lake Washington floating bridge, the first bridge of its kind in the world. The Washington State Department of Transportation wants to tear the McMillin bridge down and replace it, but preservationists believe it can and should be saved (including some of WSDOT's own experts) either by being retrofitted or being allowed to stand alongside a new bridge. But I've heard from several sources that there's a strong anti-preservation bias in WSDOT's bridge unit.

The Green Mountain Fire Lookout represents a dispute between wilderness advocates, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. According the the Washington Trust, the group Wilderness Watch is suing the Forest Service over repairs to the historic structure, saying the work violated rules for management of the Glacier Peak National Wilderness Area. They might be able to force its removal.

The suit could have a major impact on the Forest Service's ability to take care of heritage resources in designated Wilderness Areas, and in this case the National Trust is supporting the government. There have been other such conflicts, such as one over the Upper Sandy Guard Station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps along the Timberline Trail at Mount Hood. Some wilderness advocates would like to see all traces of human intrusion fall into decay and disappear in some wild areas.

A couple of major institutions are also on the list.

Due to major state budget cuts, the historic prison complex at McNeil Island is being shut down. This was the Northwest's Alcatraz, a hard-to-escape-from island prison in Puget Sound. Serving as both a federal and state penitentiary it once held prisoners as famous as The Bird Man of Alcatraz (Robert Stroud), Teamster leader Dave Beck, L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen, and the Barker gang's Alvin Karpis. There are many buildings on the site, and multiple agencies with responsibility for it. The Trust wants to ensure that there is careful management of the historic properties on the island during and after the coming transition.

Another large complex is the Northern State Hospital site in Sedro-Woolley, a National Register Historic District. The site has over 100 buildings on 300 acres landscaped according to an Olmsted Brothers plan. It was designed to house and rehabilitate the mentally ill, and the facility include a working farm with crops and livestock, a lumber mill, a steam plant. The goal was a "therapeutic landscape."

Many of the buildings are done in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. The Trust calls the hospital "a rare intact example of the Olmsted design work purposefully merging health care and agricultural functions." The state is planning to sell the site, which could jeopardize its historic integrity.

Oregon has also released its "Most Endangered" list for 2011. It includes Civic Stadium in Eugene, the Tillamook Bay Life Saving Station, and the house in Oregon City where two settlers tossed a coin to determine the name of the town now known as Portland, Oregon.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.